On any given weekday at Fortune, one can peer into Michael Perez’s office and find him in the midst of paperwork: writing reports, fulfilling compliance checks, and completing other duties. Away from his desk, you may see him training new Fortune counselors or making sure existing counselors succeed in their roles.
As a supervisor for The Freedom Program, a key unit within our Alternatives to Incarceration (ATI) program, Michael often creates lasting impact behind the scenes. It’s a departure from just a few years ago, when he was a counselor himself, providing direct assistance to justice-involved participants. Still, even with extended responsibilities, Michael doesn’t hesitate to go the extra mile. He continues to build long-term connections with former participants, and is available whenever they need him.
“[The other night], I had one of my participants from two years ago come back, and we were able to sit and chat about life. This happens often— [what I do] is a lifetime service,” he says. Michael keeps his line of communication open, providing support to all who ask. He’s invested in his participants, and they feel that genuine care with each interaction. “I get participants [when I first started] call back and say, ‘Mike, I need help.’ That’s a beautiful thing,” he shares.
The Freedom Program that Michael now supervises is specifically for justice-involved individuals who may not have immediate substance use or mental health needs, but still need an intensive program to assist them in their ability to thrive. “Maybe [an individual received their] first conviction or arrest, or [has a] pending conviction,” says Michael, “…they have the opportunity to take advantage of an ATI, and that’s where we come in.” Within the program, each participant benefits from employment training, counseling, and group support, all of which are designed to help them succeed.
Nevertheless, though Fortune has solutions for any justice-involved individual, the Freedom Program itself has certain requirements. Only individuals who are legally mandated by the court, have open felony offenses, and are likely to be sentenced to more than 190 days in jail can participate. Before admission into the program, each participant participates in a 30-day orientation with a transitional counselor. Soon after, the transitional counselor assesses the participant’s greatest levels of need. The participant is then paired with a dedicated counselor, who remains with them as long as they’re in the program. “I tell [participants] that we’re not the courts, not the lawyers, the DA, [or the] parole. We’re here to help and guide [them],” Michael notes.
Programs like what we provide through ATI and Freedom are gaining in popularity nationwide as an effective method of deterring crime and reducing recidivism, especially among young adults. As a formerly incarcerated person himself, Michael knows the importance of individualized, rehabilitative paths to success, and connects with those he supports on personal, empathetic levels: “I always try to meet the participant where they’re at,” he notes.
And the wisdom he offers them isn’t just to achieve short-term goals. “Of course, completing the program is a big deal because they get to avoid their jail sentence, but it’s so much more than that,” he stresses. Michael encourages participants to create holistic models of success, identifying opportunities for self improvement in small and large ways. He shares tools like the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Realistic and Attainable) method of creating goals and The Five P’s to remind others that dreams, through hard work, are within reach.
“Some guys will buy in but some guys have an ego,” he says, “but it’s good for them when they can see other guys say, ‘I don’t wanna be that dude. I want to be that guy who wants to do the right thing.’ That’s powerful when you have 16, 17 year olds acknowledge that.”
It’s evident from the first interaction one has with him that Michael values the work he does and the lasting influence he creates. For him, the rewards are priceless: “It gives you purpose and satisfaction to see participants make progress,” he says, “And not just when they’re completing their program, but when you can tell a participant ‘I’m proud of you’ and see them embrace that, that’s how it changes your life.”